1985 In November 1985 I was, for a brief period, an honorary member of
the royal rat pack, what Harry Arnold used to describe with pride as
"La crÃ¨me de la scum". For a week we followed Charles and Diana around
Melbourne and its outlying towns. That translated into endless hours
being flown and bussed around the state of Victoria in order to be
herded behind barricades observing – at some distance – their royal
highnesses snip numberless pieces of ribbon.
My colleagues for
the week included Arnold, James Whitaker, Arthur Edwards, Andrew Morton
and other legends of the royal beat. I remember one day that involved
four coach journeys and two flights for the privilege of seven minutes
watching the royal couple visit a wild game reserve.
At the end of the day we held an impromptu meeting to discuss which of two possible angles we would all go on.
Angle one was the fact that Diana had appeared at a formal dinner with bronze gel on her legs rather than stockings.
two was that Diana's off-the-shoulder dress revealed two mosquito bites
on her right shoulder blade. At this distance in time I forget which
one we went for.
I was an early enthusiast for gadgets and was
travelling with a Tandy 100 – a primitive portable word processor
powered by four AA batteries. If you hooked it up to a phone using
rubber cups (known erotically as 'acoustic couplers')n you could file a
1,000-word story in about six minutes – significantly faster than going
on to Copy. But before you could do that, you had to set up a packet
switch account with the Australian telephone authorities (which took at
least half a day) and remember a piece of code only marginally shorter
than the genome sequence of a nematode worm. It was pioneer stuff, but
I wasn't sure it was going to catch on.
November 1995 I'd been
editor for just over 10 months and my feet had almost begun to touch
the ground. Occasionally. It was a busy month, with the assassination
of Rabin, the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and Diana's startling Panorama
interview. Once again I found myself writing about the royal family –
though this time it was an editorial the morning after the night
before, a period marked by Nicholas Soames's noble spinning to the
effect that the Princess was barmy. My desk diary from 10 years ago
shows that, in one week, I lunched Stephen Dorrell, then a rising star
of the Tory wets; Lord Gowrie, then running the Arts Council; and
Stewart Steven, then (I think) still running the Evening Standard. The
lunch with Stewart was at the Savoy Grill (his choice). He was
extremely kindly, smoked a large cigar and told me never, ever, ever to
compromise on editorial budgets.
The Tandy 100 had gone into
retirement. On my desk in the office was a monster screen hooked up to
an ATEX system, which was as un-WYSIWYG as you can get.
with the outside world via the system was virtually impossible, though
it was possible, for the first time, to message each other by using the
first five letters of their surname. With some people it's stuck ever
since. Richard Norton Taylor, our distinguished security editor, will
forever be known in the office as Norto.
November 2005 I've been
editor for just over 10 years and the truth is beginning to dawn that,
in this job, your feet never touch the ground. Every time you fool
yourself into thinking you're on top of the job it jumps up and bites
you. I like the advice of George Bernard Shaw: "A daily paper should
have at least three editors, each having one day on and two days off.
At present the papers are 20 years behind the times because the editors
are recluses. Lighthouse keepers with wireless sets know far more of
what is going on in the world."
In fact, after several months of
virtual Berliner reclusion, I have finally managed to start meeting
people other than editing colleagues, printers and designers.
Admittedly, many of them are lawyers. Every time you fool yourself that
the libel laws are becoming more sensible, reality mugs you. The latest
gambit of claimant lawyers is to track down every website and blog in
the world which may have mentioned a particular allegation – and then
charge you for the privilege (bargain rates – no more than £420 to £800
Nice work if you can get it.
In the last 10 days
I have been out of the office to speak to some sixth formers (a
sprinkling of newspaper readers among hordes of webbies). I've
succeeded in getting to the theatre to see Mike Leigh's play, complete
with Guardian product placement. I have managed a day of thinking about
the future (web, not newspapers) with colleagues. And I have even
managed two days off – and a game of golf (my first since mid-May). I
can report that The Guardian's editor and operations director managed
to relieve the advertising director and head of financial planning of
£20 after a (moderately) friendly four ball.
In my golf bag I
have the latest gadgetry – a mobile phone and a BlackBerry. During
occasional lulls in play I can keep up with email – or that was the
theory. In practice, the BlackBerry decided to go on strike, leaving me
mail-less for all of three and a half hours. Most normal people would
treasure the rare communications black-out. Me, I got cold turkey
around the 90-minute mark and phoned the office twice to see if they
could repair it at their end.
From Tandy to BlackBerry in 20 years – and this is what it's done to me. Is it too late to become a lighthouse keeper?